Hopes have nearly evaporated for a binding agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in less than six weeks, for that is when Ethiopia wants to start blocking the flow of water to Sudan and Egypt to implement the second stage of filling. As for the chances that Addis Ababa will develop a sense of responsibility between now and then and postpone the second filling out of consideration for the rights and welfare of downstream nations, they are next to zero. The past seven years of negotiations have made Ethiopia’s modus operandi very clear: act in bad faith, impose a new status quo, utilise the dam for political ends, and shrug off the harm inflicted on others.
During 4 and 5 April Kinshasa talks, under the sponsorship of the current African Union chairperson, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DNC), and attended by the foreign and irrigation ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, and international observers, Ethiopia rejected everything the Egyptian and Sudanese delegates proposed to move the talks forward. Ethiopia’s refusal to budge exposed its contempt for the African Union. One would have thought that, as the home to the AU’s headquarters, Addis Ababa would have been keener to help its efforts succeed, especially after all the lip service it has paid to “African solutions to African problems”.
So, what happens now?
Cairo and Khartoum are still prioritising negotiations over all other options. Their aim is to reach a comprehensive agreement that guarantees the rights and interests of all three states in keeping with the provisions of the Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses. The convention, adopted in 1997, establishes principles for the fair and equitable use of transboundary rivers by the countries they pass through, and takes into account such factors as the relative availability of water resources, population size, and basic water needs. Its chief principle is avoidance of harm, which means not taking measures affecting the river that could deliberately or inadvertently hurt others.
Egypt and Sudan have been pursuing all available diplomatic options in order to rally enough pressure to convince Ethiopia to abandon its hardline, destructive unilateralism. After the Kinshasa debacle they now hope to bring Addis Ababa back to the negotiating table under new mediation, this time comprising the UN, the EU, the US, and the AU. Because of the political and moral weight of these parties, and the valuable ideas and suggestions they could bring to the table in the trilateral technical and legal talks, this powerful quartet could steer the talks, within a set timeframe, towards a binding agreement satisfactory to all, ie an agreement that will guarantee Ethiopia’s right to attain its development goals in a peaceful and cooperative regional environment and simultaneously avert significant harm to downstream nations and safeguard their water rights.
The current standstill to which Ethiopian obstinacy has brought the negotiations has inevitably raised the possibility of other options, including some unpleasant ones. If they do occur, they will be regarded as acts of self-defence given the lives of more than 150 million people are at stake. To avoid such undesirable possibilities, Egypt and Sudan have turned to the UN Security Council (UNSC). In separate letters Cairo and Khartoum have called on the UN to safeguard international peace and security and forestall the slide into a protracted conflict.
Egyptian diplomacy is moving quickly to follow through on its letter. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri is touring a number of African countries, including Kenya, Comoros, South Africa, the DRC, Senegal and Tunisia, in order to explain Egypt’s position on the threats posed by Ethiopian unilateralism, the dangerous implications of the failure of the AU’s attempt to steer the negotiations, and the urgency of effective international intervention to prevent any dangerous escalation.
In his five-page letter to the UNSC, Shoukri reaffirmed Egypt’s commitment to the pursuit of mutual benefits. He underscored the linkage Cairo draws between Ethiopia’s right to development, on the one hand, and, on the other, Egypt’s right to its water quota and Ethiopia’s obligation to mitigate any negative impacts of the dam on downstream states.
The letter argued that eight months of AU-sponsored negotiations had proved fruitless due to Ethiopia’s intransigence and lack of political will to reach a binding agreement, and refusal to consider any of the proposals Egypt had made to overcome sticking points. The repeated refusals had left the impression that Ethiopia is reluctant to become party to a legally binding instrument that establishes clear rights and obligations for the three parties and robust mechanisms to ensure its effective implementation.
On the last round of trilateral talks in Kinshasa in April Shoukri relates how Ethiopia refused to re-engage in negotiations and, in the closing session of the ministerial meeting, rejected inclusion in the final communiqué of any wording suggesting that negotiations would resume with the purpose of reaching a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.
In his letter Shoukri warned that, in the absence of a tripartite agreement, the second filling of the dam would inflict severe harm on downstream nations and the consequent water shortage adversely affect the lives of 105 million Egyptians.
The letter to the UNSC appealed to the international community to impress on Ethiopia the need to engage, in good faith, in negotiations that will lead to an agreement and to refrain from any unilateral actions, including a second filling during the forthcoming rainy season, until such an agreement is reached. It warned that the continued absence of an agreement and the spectre of the grave harm Ethiopian unilateral actions could inflict on downstream nations and their water security would drive up tensions throughout the Horn of Africa and threaten international peace and security. Egypt, for its part, would be in a strategically untenable position if it allowed not just the livelihood but the very survival of the Egyptian people to be at the mercy of an upstream nation that has consistently shown bad faith and the lack of will to act responsibly in collaboration with downstream nations.
The letter from Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi to the UNSC echoed Egypt’s complaints about Ethiopia’s inability to act in good faith, intransigence and lack of openness to an agreement over GERD. The letter also warned of the dangers unilateral Ethiopian actions posed to Sudan and included two annexes detailing the potential impact of GERD on Sudan. A mega-dam on such a scale will completely alter the Blue Nile’s hydrological ecosystem. There are also structural concerns. The letter pointed out that if the dam is not properly designed, constructed, filled, and operated, it poses a threat to the 20 million Sudanese who live along the Blue Nile’s banks. And even presuming the dam’s safety, without mechanisms for coordination, GERD will adversely affect the operation of Sudanese dams and agricultural systems across the country.
In her letter, Al-Mahdi also stressed the role of the Blue Nile in the history, economic and cultural life of the people in the region, and the source of life for 40 million Sudanese. It provides the water for 70 per cent of Sudan’s irrigated land and thus forms the heart of the agricultural activities on which so many Sudanese depend.
Sudan’s position on GERD is informed by its belief in the need for regional cooperation and partnership not just among Blue Nile states but across the Nile Basin. Like Cairo, Khartoum recognises Ethiopia’s right to development and to optimise the use of its water resources. Addis Ababa should also, however, appreciate Khartoum’s concerns over the many possible risks arising from the dam and the potential harm that could be visited on Sudan in the absence of proper precautions and controls.
During the first filling of GERD last year, which involved around 5bcm of water being retained in the reservoir, the sudden reduction in the flow of the Blue Nile caused a three-day water shortage in Khartoum. Imagine, then, the impact of the 13.5bcm that Addis Ababa plans to store during the next flooding season.
In order to contain any repercussions from Ethiopia’s unilateral moves Al-Mahdi, in her letter, has asked the UNSC to first take stock of the implications of the failed AU-sponsored negotiations and Ethiopia’s declared intent to proceed with the second filling in the absence of an agreement with Khartoum and Cairo; secondly, to understand that such unilateral actions will aggravate the crisis and put paid to any opportunity for amicable solutions and, thirdly, to appeal to all parties to refrain from any unilateral actions, including the second filling of the dam or any other step that might increase regional tensions and threaten international peace.
As the Sudanese letter shows, Egypt and Sudan are essentially of one mind regarding the nature of the Ethiopian threat and the need for the UNSC to act swiftly and resolutely to ensure that negotiations resume in an effective format that can produce meaningful results. Egypt and Sudan have shown again and again that they can act as responsible stakeholders. There is not much time for the international community to convince Ethiopia to do the same.
*The writer is senior advisor to Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly